David Ford MLA said: “Isn’t it great to be back at Conference again, with a big attendance, a bustling exhibition, great interest from both traditional and social media and – most important – to be in a party with a vision, with values and with a united, strong determination to take all of Northern Ireland forward, not like those who are hung up on taking one constituency back. More specifically, to take back East Belfast from the progressive path that it took five years ago.
When we celebrated Naomi’s win five years ago, even those of us who had believed victory was possible did not realise the impact it would have. For the first time ever, an elected Alliance MP, our Deputy Leader, was in the House of Commons: questioning Ministers; successfully amending the law; playing a full part in the Northern Ireland Select Committee and all-party groups; engaging with the London media.
Naomi has been promoting our vision and our values at the very heart of Westminster in a way that we could never do before. Truly a huge step forward for Alliance, and for Northern Ireland. It isn’t easy to move from being one of the team in the Assembly to being the team in the Commons, but Naomi has done so and done us proud.
She has shown, beyond any doubt, that when Alliance promises to take Northern Ireland forward, Alliance delivers. Against all of the commitments she made five years ago, Naomi Long has delivered. She has delivered for Alliance; delivered for Northern Ireland; and, of course, delivered for her beloved East Belfast, in the service of which she, her fellow MLAs Judith Cochrane and Chris Lyttle, and their staff, have endured pickets, firebombs, and death threats.
Under threat, Naomi has shown she’s made of steel to match the shipyards of East Belfast. In the heat of debate, she has displayed passion, intellect and integrity. In serving her constituents, she works at a rate that I have never seen before. That’s why the people of East Belfast elected her in 2010, and that’s why I’m confident they will do so again.
Because unlike the Peter Robinson, who describes his number one target as “returning East Belfast to DUP hands”, Naomi’s number one target is taking East Belfast forward. Her priority is people, not party, but she delivers spectacularly for both.
Looking to the future, I believe that electing our first Alliance MP will come to be seen as one of the defining moments for Alliance. Not a flash in the pan, but a very significant staging post. A very significant part of stepping forward for all of us.
I confess that I have spent a little time recently looking back. A few weeks ago, some of us gathered at a restaurant in South Antrim to mark my 25 years as an officer of the party. Those 25 years have been a time of tremendous change, and then growth, for Alliance. The shattered hopes of the Brook-Mayhew talks. The stagnation of the mid-90s. The Good Friday Agreement and the referendum. The stop-go of the first Assembly.
Those were tough years for Alliance. All the emphasis at that time was on propping up the SDLP and UUP. Governments and commentators said that getting the nicer representatives of each side to work a few fixes was the way forward. How wrong they were.
Those parties failed the test of uniting our society. In the turmoil of the chaotic relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein, it’s easy to forget the dysfunctional UUP/SDLP relationship when they were in charge. Despite the potential of Good Friday 1998, the efforts to keep power-sharing going via the SDLP and UUP proved pointless.
The next few years saw Alliance consolidate its position, until – after the St Andrews Agreement – it became clear that Justice was to be devolved, and no other party was trusted to lead that sensitive Department. It showed clearly that Alliance, stepping out of the divisive politics of unionism versus nationalism, provides an absolutely indispensable alternative. Whether or not other parties admit it.
There is no way that traditional, sectional politicians would be trusted with such complex and delicate issues, but I believe that the last five years have demonstrated that when it comes to delivering for everyone in our community, rather than one section or another, Alliance can be trusted, and Alliance can deliver.
The people must agree, for weeks after I became a Minister, Naomi won East Belfast and a year later an extra Assembly seat, and extra votes right across this region, meant that Stephen Farry joined me at the Executive table. I hear comments from within the Universities and Colleges, as well as the skills and training sector, emphasising the step change in his department, compared to his SDLP and UUP predecessors.
Stephen’s vision is underpinned by a conviction that the talent and tenacity of the Northern Ireland people is central to growing our economy, and that investing in education and training is the key to empowering individuals and creating a modern and dynamic economy. and his record of delivery is recognised everywhere I go. I am privileged to have him as a colleague, and this Party should be proud of what he has achieved in your name, and for the future of our community.
When we look back as recently as the time the Assembly was suspended, eight years ago, we can see a clear line of growth in size and influence for Alliance. I fully believe that we can claim to have made a real difference.
That success has not come from some sort of good fortune. It has come about because of the efforts of a great many people over the years. Let’s never forget the vision of Oliver Napier, Bob Cooper and the small group who had a dream of a better Northern Ireland and founded this party to be an Alliance of all who shared the vision. Some who worked with them in those early days are in this hall today, still leading change. I am proud of you too.
We would not have achieved success if it had not been for our members, all those who knocked doors and stuffed envelopes, who paid their subs and ran fundraisers, to keep this party going during the difficult days. Thank you, for being the foundation upon which all of this party’s achievements have been, and continue to be, built.
And Alliance has a magnificent team of public representatives, in Councils, the Assembly and Parliament. It is a real privilege to lead the Stormont team. I am proud that though we come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and can disagree on many things, we are absolutely united on the fundamentals. Even on sensitive issues of personal conscience, like abortion, we can have rational, thoughtful discussions.
Of course, as public representatives we depend hugely on our staff team, to provide us with all we need to put forward the Alliance vision successfully. So to Debbie, Lauren, Sharon and Sam in headquarters; to Ben, David and Nuala in Stormont; and to all our constituency staff; to Christine and Richard, our Ministerial advisers, a very big thank you.
For all those who have supported us, the year since Conference 2014 has been something of a roller-coaster. Just after Conference we went into the double election campaign, for new Councils and the European Parliament. Not everyone who stepped forward for Alliance got elected – there were difficult new boundaries and a number of near misses – but I know that a bright political future awaits them.
But remember that we were told that we would be wiped out as a result of the flag protests, and just look at what we did achieve. Representation on seven of the eleven new Councils, from Causeway Coast and Glens to Newry, Mourne and Down. Enough strength to secure powers of call-in on several of them. An increased group in Belfast, with a stronger grip on the balance of power in City Hall, ensuring that issues are decided on their merits and not a sectarian headcount.
And in the European election? 47,000 Alliance votes. 47,000 people wanting to take Northern Ireland forward. Our best result ever, surpassing even the vote achieved by Oliver Napier in June 1979, the month after he so nearly won East Belfast. A vote which came not just from our heartlands, but from every part of the region. So thank you Anna, and all those who stepped forward in the Council elections.
But our work does not stop when votes are counted, because that’s when the work begins to deliver on our commitments, and put our principles into practice.
And the events of this year have shown how badly that is needed. Because alongside Alliance’s successes, the sense of stagger and stagnation, of crisis and collapse, that characterised politics here for months was overwhelming.
Peter threatens to resign over the OTR scheme. Martin threatens to withdraw support for policing because Gerry is questioned by police. Peter threatens a graduated response to lawful parades determinations, and marches all of unionism and loyalism once more to the top of the hill, or should I say Twadell. There they have sat for over 600 days, burning up £15million of the police budget that they pretend they care about, and putting the very lives of officers at risk from terrorist attack. Gregory’s pathetic but abusive “Curry My Yoghurt”, Gerry’s “Trojan Horse”, and Sammy’s likening of a Sinn Fein MLA to a brainwashed ISIS recruit.
The budget crises of June, July, October, and December. The all-night brinkmanship talks that they all appear to thrive on, but which the public just roll their eyes at. The inefficiency and ineffectiveness that arises from the distrust between them and their mutual fear of losing votes on their respective extremes. Believe me, after five years of seeing how these people attempt to run a government, the TV series Number Twos isn’t so much comedy as reality television.
Meanwhile, investigative journalists expose cover-ups of sexual abuse, misappropriation of public funds, and attempts to inappropriately influence decisions of public bodies.
Of course, a few gestures are thrown in to suggest that things aren’t so bad. But the gestures simply reflect how little we have progressed. A couple of weeks ago, DUP and Sinn Fein representatives suggested that for the First Minister to visit West Belfast was somehow ground-breaking and historic. You would think he had visited South Georgia or Pitcairn. What poverty of ambition for this society when they get excited that seven years after taking up office the First Minister has deigned to visit West Belfast.
They quote C S Lewis, that “day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different”. Well, I say back to them, that for the people of Northern Ireland, 21 years after the ceasefires, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and after 12 years of devolved government, things aren’t half different enough.
The constant political games damage our economy and divide our community. Combined with abuses of power and privilege, they corrode public confidence in the political process; reasonable people say “why bother”; and turnouts fall. No wonder the vox pops on the radio are so relentlessly disparaging of what passes for politics at Stormont.
But the opportunities to move Northern Ireland forward are there. Time and again governments in London, Dublin and Washington pledge their support, and commit time and energy to show it’s real. A Corporation Tax Bill at Westminster; significant financial incentives from the Treasury; open doors and active support for job creation from the United States. But what do they get in return from tribal politicians?
Half-hearted agreements, the difficult issues kicked down the road, and more crises.
Remember, our concerns with the Stormont House Agreement were not with what was agreed, but what was not agreed. Events since have justified my description of the Agreement as ‘a deal to make a deal’.
The refusal of other parties to engage in a meaningful way on the issues of parades and flags, both official and unofficial, keeps the pot boiling, because that serves their electoral strategies, regardless of the consequences.
But we did seem to get some agreement on new ways to deal with the past. Alliance policies and proposals can be seen strongly reflected in that area, and I am working hard to ensure that DoJ delivers for victims and survivors. And we secured agreement that a crucial aspect of dealing with the legacy of the past is reconciliation. Northern Ireland needs healing, as well as remembering.
Much of the Stormont House process, of course, was driven by money. Long-term mismanagement and populism by other parties finally caught up with them, as we had long warned it would. Months of financial crisis came to a head alongside years of campaigning by the business community for the power to reduce Corporation Tax.
Stormont House committed the UK government to deliver on the latter, and the Executive parties to sort out the former. The two are absolutely linked. We can’t reduce Corporation Tax without a sustainable budget plan. Our worry remains that the other parties want the benefits, but won’t face up to the necessary work.
Let’s be clear. Alliance supports the devolution of power over Corporation Tax, and the opportunity to set a rate level to that across the border. However, nobody should believe that Corporation Tax alone is the silver bullet that will transform our economy. No inward investor is going to say “I like your tax rate, I don’t care whether you have skilled workers.”
Some of the other parties get that. But Alliance goes further. Yes, we need skilled and qualified staff. But we also need to invest in our infrastructure and improve our planning system. We need a real and coherent focus on sorting out all that is holding our economy back.
There are other issues too that the traditional parties would like to ignore. They include the chill factor when scenes of street disturbances and stories of sectarian squabbles feature on the media right round the world. It’s a total government approach that’s needed, addressing all the factors that could help us grow our economy. A big vision, of a transformed Northern Ireland, with a stronger economy, effective government. a future-focussed skills agenda, a vibrant, shared community that retains its talent and attracts investors and tourists.
So what happened when Stephen sought to address one of these issues- the fact that we train far more teachers than this society needs, at the expense of the university courses on which economic growth will depend?
Nationalist politicians leapt to the defence of the sectional interests of St Mary’s College and Unionists responded to bang the drum for Stranmillis. One for me, one for you politics, rather than a sensible decision on the prioritisation of scarce resources. Stephen’s balanced decision was called in to the Executive, where he won the argument hands down – how I wish you could have seen him resoundingly demolishing the arguments put up by other Ministers – but we lost the vote: eleven – two.
Here was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the Executive parties didn’t just sign up at Stormont House to get another Wonga loan from George Osborne. An opportunity to simultaneously tackle duplication, to restructure services, and to take a step towards integrating education. But every other Minister – DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and UUP – bowed to sectional interests.
Young people will continue to be trained as teachers for careers that do not exist and many of those who wish to study STEM subjects will have to leave Northern Ireland, meaning that they are less likely to become wealth creators here. To put the absurdity of the decision in even more stark relief, the other parties’ decision means that we continue to artificially inflate the number of teachers we train while simultaneously announcing 500 job losses for teachers.
So much for the backward-looking parties’ fine promises of supporting reform and restructuring. Sectional politics wins every time. The devolution of Corporation Tax is the right thing to do, but it will only be achievable if parties are prepared to face up to the big challenges of driving out the waste that comes with maintaining division. If they can’t be trusted to stop interfering when Alliance reforms would save two million pounds, how have they the nerve to claim they can be trusted with finding two hundred million to pay for reduced Corporation Tax?
This week’s crisis raises even bigger questions about the future of the Agreement, even of the institutions. I don’t know who to be more frustrated with. Is it the SDLP, who sat silent throughout the Stormont House discussions on Welfare Reform, didn’t object to the agreement that was presented to the Government as the basis for all the other financial commitments, and then pursued a shamelessly populist strategy as the Welfare Bill made its way through the Assembly? Or is it Sinn Fein, who have now turned a full 360 degrees, opposing welfare reform, agreeing to implement it, and now opposing it once again.
Whoever is being more disingenuous, cynical or stupid, let me be absolutely clear where the blame will lie if this Agreement falls apart over welfare reform. It will lie with every MLA who signed last week’s Petition of Concern – Sinn Fein, SDLP and Green Party. Don’t let them get away with their claims that it’s all about protecting the vulnerable, because it’s not. It’s about protecting their own votes.
We can’t protect vulnerable people if we have to take another £200 million or more out of public services to fund further adjustments to benefits. We can’t protect the vulnerable if we have to take hundreds of millions out to pay fines to the Treasury. And we can’t make the step change in job creation if we can’t afford to reduce corporation tax. Their actions will damage jobs, damage public services, and damage the most vulnerable. Not so much left-wing as incompetent.
But perhaps that’s too far down the road for them to care about. What matters now, and next year, are the Westminster and Assembly elections. Votes. Forget the vulnerable in the long-term and focus on the party in the short-term. That’s their message.
Of course, it’s not just the nationalist parties whose compass is determined solely by votes. It is clear from the DUP in particular that every decision, every initiative, every vote is fed by a calculation about what the effect will be on the election results. Even the proposer of the so-called ‘conscience clause’ let slip on television that it was all about votes – and votes in East Belfast.
Isn’t it strange that unionists opposed proportional representation, and said the X vote was better, yet whenever a Westminster election comes round they try to cobble together pacts to undermine a fair fight on the rules they claim they prefer?
After the spectacle of 40,000 bogus leaflets over the flags issue, and the violence and intimidation that followed, none of us should be surprised at the dirty tricks that our opponents throw at us. If they can discipline one of their own Councillors for sticking to her principles and telling the truth, we can expect more of the same. But we will campaign this year and next as we campaigned when we won East Belfast five years ago, standing on our record and promoting our positive vision of a changed, transformed, united Northern Ireland.
Just a few months ago, the DUP Leader stood in this hall and made his Conference speech. You might have thought he would want to overturn the Sinn Fein majority of just four in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but you would have been wrong. He named East Belfast as his number one target. He wants to take it back. That’s what he has said. Take it back in every sense. The key passage was an attack on this party and what we stand for. I don’t intend to reply in kind – I don’t do bile and venom the way Mr Robinson does – but I am going to respond to his charges.
I am proud that in this party, we know how to treat flags with respect and fly them in the right place at the right time. We don’t use them to mark territory like dogs on a lamp post, to tell other people who’s in charge, and who’s not welcome.
I am proud that in Alliance we respect the rule of law and we uphold the determinations of the Parades Commission, the body established by Parliament to sort out the mess created on the streets by some parading groups and some protestors.
I am proud that Alliance representatives have stood firm for the rights of everyone in this society, including the female majority and religious, racial and sexual minorities.
I am proud that we, and only we, take a responsible approach to public expenditure, including proper consideration of fair and progressive taxation and service charges. Boasting about paying the lowest household taxes in the UK does nothing to provide services to those in most need, and cuts no ice when Ministers take their begging bowl to the Treasury.
So that’s my response to Robinson’s attempt to demonise Alliance as “flag-lowering, parade stopping, gay marriage supporting and water charging”. As for his claim that we’re “holier than thou”, well, we’re not. But we are more committed to transforming Northern Ireland than you, Mr Robinson. We are more effective in government than you Mr Robinson. And we will work harder than you, Mr Robinson, to make our vision a reality.
It was Alliance who forced the DUP and Sinn Fein to publish a shared future strategy. It was Alliance who led the demands for it to be strengthened. It was Alliance who proposed what became the Haass talks. Alliance who pressed the governments to step up and take on their responsibilities when those talks failed.
Alliance ensured that the Stormont House Agreement included a commitment to an independent audit of how divisions in our society impact on the delivery of goods and services, and to consider how to reconfigure service delivery to build a shared future. And it will be Alliance who works to hold the parties to that commitment.
It’s Alliance who kept the promises on double-jobbing, and Alliance who led the way on transparency in public life.
In government, it’s Alliance Ministers who are tackling the big issues, facing up to our responsibilities, and delivering change. Managing our budgets, advancing a shared future, reducing unemployment and upskilling the workforce; reducing crime and re-offending, making communities safer and less divided. That’s what the people of Northern Ireland want, and need. They need political stability, political integrity, and a genuine commitment to uniting this community.
So in the face of the latest crisis, what are we to do? Give up and go home? Withdraw from the Executive and let them do their worst in two more departments? No. Like our founders, and all those who have promoted the Alliance vision of a radical alternative, we refuse to stand by and let our community suffer. Instead, we recommit ourselves to the task of securing political stability, demonstrating political integrity, and building a genuinely united community. To the task of mobilising all those who want a different, better future to step forward.
And those people are out there. The biggest protests in Belfast this year haven’t been about flags or marches – they’ve been about facing down racism, and championing diversity. Poll after poll demonstrates the overwhelming public desire for integrated education.
People want change; our task is to convince them that stepping forward to vote Alliance will bring that change closer, and that voting for the other parties pushes it away. To remind them that the UUP are sitting on the Twaddell Camp Committee alongside the DUP and PUP; that so-called moderate Gavin Robinson stood grinning outside the Court beside Ruth Patterson the day she admitted a charge of grossly offensive communication.
To remind people that no other party was prepared to back our proposal for a moratorium on flags decisions to avoid the new Councils being distracted by divisive arguments. That the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Green Party between them this week put the very future of our political institutions in real jeopardy, and the public services that they claim to defend at risk of further, and frankly dangerous, cuts.
History has left us a legacy of a society with two groups of people with two diametrically opposed views on a whole range of issues. They have maintained those differences for a century, while these islands, Europe, the world have changed beyond recognition. But to suggest that every person in Northern Ireland falls into one of two camps is simply nonsense. We are a much more complex society than that, more diverse, more open.
We see that when we engage with others who are concerned about the environment, about animal welfare, about international issues. We see that when we engage with those running integrated schools. We see that when we speak to a host of those working in local charities and community groups. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not the defining issue of everyday lives. It is time that our political structures and our political system recognised that.
The truth is that we are saddled with structures at Stormont which make building a united community harder, not easier. There is too much emphasis on protection for sectional interests rather than promotion of a shared future. We have seen in recent weeks and months that there is no likelihood of the sectional parties doing anything about this. Change has only happened where Alliance MLAs, an Alliance MP, and Alliance Ministers have stepped forward and driven change.
Our task now is to set out a bold, radical but realistic vision of what Northern Ireland could be, if people step forward with us and make it happen. A Northern Ireland where we take big steps forward.
Where we can afford to take big decisions on Corporation Tax because we’re prepared to take equally big decisions about tackling wasteful division.
Where we don’t insist on one sided policies on flags or decisions on parades.
Where the first priority in new councils is making local communities better places in which to live, work and play; not what flag to fly, what language to use on the letterhead, and what to sell in reception.
Where we celebrate the things that unite us, rather than commemorating the events that divide us.
Where children are integrated in schools – genuinely integrated in the classroom and playground, not segregated in a so-called shared campus. And where those schools deliver for all our children, not just some.
Where our colleges and universities are supported to educate and equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to contribute to society and compete in a global marketplace.
Where we have a health service that is effectively reformed and restructured to deliver world-class healthcare.
Where politics is known for delivery, not dithering; where politicians work to unite people, and to build confidence, rather than to divide them and play to their fears.
That’s the Alliance vision. Unique in Northern Ireland. A message to inspire and motivate people. A message to take to the doorsteps in the Westminster campaign and to keep on promoting to next year’s Assembly elections and beyond.
The same message, of aspiration and ambition for our community that motivated you to step forward and join Alliance, can motivate many thousands of others to step forward and vote for us. So let’s go from this place, committed to that vision and to making it a reality. Determined to build the kind of future that our community deserves. Not just deserves, but desperately needs.
Not looking back, but forward. Stepping forward to take Northern Ireland forward.”